Dr. Matthew Aylott fears the development of more sustainable biofuels is being hampered by the food v fuel debate
Food versus fuel is the itch that just won't go away. Even though biofuels have been in our fuel tanks for over five years, the industry is still embroiled in a row which could be limiting our progress towards more sustainable fuels made from biomass.
Biofuels were once seen as the renewable solution to our transport needs, with the greenhouse gases being pumped out of car exhausts being absorbed again by plants to make yet more fuel. However, many have questioned whether we have enough land to feed ourselves and to sustainably produce biofuels.
An area the size of the Netherlands
A report by The Institute for European Environmental Policy suggests that by 2020 more than 4.1 million hectares of uncultivated land may have to be cleared to grow the crops needed to meet our biofuel targets and feed the EU. This is an area the size of the Netherlands.
Even though this might sound huge, in context, it remains relatively small. It is just 0.1 per cent of the world's cropland, or an area less than a quarter the size of the world's cotton plantations and roughly equivalent to the amount of land we use to produce tobacco. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation have shown that there is potentially over 1,600 million hectares of unused land "available" for farming worldwide.
What does "available" land actually mean?
Much of this "available" land is on continents like Africa and Latin America, often far from agricultural infrastructure and significant investment would be needed to realistically make this land available for growing biofuel crops. In addition, global competition for biofuels and increased demand for new residential areas, food and materials, like bioplastics, could use up to two thirds of the available land by 2020.
This still means we have enough land to meet our target to produce 10 per cent of our transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020. However, there are serious questions marks over whether we can sustainably produce the much larger volumes of biofuels needed to make a meaningful dent in our fossil fuel consumption. As pressure grows to reduce carbon emissions, oil supplies run low and the population soars towards a predicted 10 billion by 2080, land will become scarcer and crops more expensive.
Biofuels versus electric cars
With there being insufficient land to grow 100 per cent of our transport fuel from biomass using current technologies, why are we pursuing biofuels? Many people suggest using electricity rather than biofuel is a better transport option. However, there is no reason why biofuels and electric vehicles can't both work. Biofuels offer an environmentally and financially competitive alternative to electric cars, which remain a sound long-term solution but are currently neither affordable nor have the infrastructure to support wide scale deployment.
In the short to mid-term biofuels are likely to be the most important way of reducing our carbon emissions from transport, because they are accessible and can be used in the cars we drive today.
Research tells us that conventional biofuels, like ethanol made from wheat, can and do result in greenhouse gas (GHG) savings. In fact, conventional biofuels used in the UK last year reduced GHG emissions by 55 per cent compared to petrol and diesel. However, we must push for the development of more sustainable biofuels, which are likely to prevent even more emissions being released into the atmosphere and will reduce the pressure on land needed for food.
Waste not, want not
New advanced technologies, like gasification and pyrolysis, have made it possible to convert non-food feedstocks, like household rubbish, waste wood and agricultural residues, into fuel.
Household rubbish in particular could be a popular option, after all there is a lot of it, it contains up to 60 per cent biomass and sending it to landfill is becoming increasingly costly.
So why aren't we using it already? For one, we are still developing the technology but waste also has competing end markets. In the UK, long contracts with local authorities and lack of ambition means waste is tied up in lower risk ventures, like landfill, incineration or even land remediation.
It is currently easier and cheaper to spread the processed rubbish (known as floc) on derelict or abandoned sites to remediate the land or as a landfill cover material. This results in waste being a net producer of GHG emissions when it could be a sink. If the aim of the Renewable Energy and Waste Framework Directives is to reduce GHG emissions as well as pressure on land resources, then we need to re-think what we do with our waste.
A sustainable solution
The European Commission recently announced that biofuels must meet specific sustainability requirements to qualify for subsidies or count towards mandatory national renewable energy targets. This marks a significant step towards making more sustainable fuels and moving away from the backlash of first generation bioethanol and biodiesel.
But we must go further. What is needed is legislation which links financial rewards directly to environmental performance, which would make it more attractive for companies to invest in advanced conversion processes which can convert less conventional feedstocks into fuel; feedstocks which offer much greater potential for GHG savings.
As the availability of land decreases, greater pressure will be put on sustainability. Making biofuels from wastes and agricultural residues serves the dual purposes of reducing GHG emissions and preserving land for alternative uses. Therefore it is paramount that we drive their development.
Dr. Matthew Aylott is Science Writer for the NNFCC.
The NNFCC are the UK's National Centre for Biorenewable Energy, Fuels and Materials. For more information see www.nnfcc.co.uk